Space philosopher Frank White coined the term the “Overview Effect,” identifying “the change that occurs within someone when they see Earth from above.” Astronauts, after living their entire lives governed by gravity and politics, hurl themselves into space and experience the Overview Effect. Afterward, they struggle expressing it with words. They behold the Earth in a way only a few hundred people have before and are changed permanently. They are above everything else, not only seeing Earth from a separate place, but also seeing Earth hanging within the universe.
From such a far distance, political lines and boundary markers become invisible. The monotonous rotation of Earth, shifting from night into day without our help, becomes profound to those in space. Many, upon returning to Earth, work to protect their home planet more than ever before, become artists in an attempt to convey their experience, or struggle because nothing on Earth compares to what they saw. It’s described as common place but not ordinary.
Imagine with me for a moment, what it was like for Adam and Eve to walk in the Garden with God. What were their conversations like? Did they speak about the past? The future? Did God explain why he made the clownfish look so funny or why lion fur is so soft? Did they crack jokes about the portly manatees or the elongated giraffe? At what point did their conversation turn to matters of the heart and soul? What seeds did God plant in Adam’s heart that would eventually mature into wisdom? The time Adam spent with God was probably commonplace but never ordinary.
Moses, the Sinai Mountain climber, met with God. What was it like to see God’s glory, to behold his presence? After living among the people governed by the weight of the human heart, he strapped on his sandals and hiked to the top of the mountain to experience this moment he’d struggle to put into words. On behalf of the people of Israel, Moses beheld God in a way only two others had before, and he was changed permanently. Able to see the landscape above everything else, and brave to interact with a God powerful enough to make lightning and fire, Moses now saw God within his Earth. This moment was not commonplace nor ordinary.
But maybe both the Garden dwellers and the Sinai Mountain climber knew that God’s presence had always and would always be common to his people. He wanted an entire kingdom of priests, not just a select few (Exodus 19:6). He didn’t want to be a God far from his people, distant and unknown. Maybe we were always supposed to know of his presence among us, but because it is so commonplace, it has become ordinary. It has become so familiar we fail to recognize it.
We look past the miracles of baby births, sunrises, and seeds sprouting. We overlook the holiness of feasting, celebrating, and quiet spaces. We miss the sacredness of gathering with other believers, sharing communion, and lighting a candle to remind us that God is near. We have forgotten that the presence of God within our life is, in fact, commonplace but certainly not ordinary.
Nothing is more ordinary than a seed needing water to grow. California’s Mojave desert is home to sparse flora, rugged fauna, and dry riverbeds which serve as placeholders for the underground rivers. The predictable ghost towns and tumble weed are as unsurprising as the extreme temperatures. Yet, this ordinary place occasionally becomes extraordinary. The Mojave’s Super Bloom, the explosion of color and life due to this winter’s rain creates the perfect environment for the simple poppy flower to explode in blooms, causing a scene so grand and expansive that it can be observed from outer space. A drab desert becomes a paint palette. A common poppy is no longer ordinary. A common rainstorm caused something extraordinary.
What if we borrow the “Overview Effect” term and use it to describe the change which happens in us when we become aware of the presence of God with us. Could we become so captivated by God’s glory that we are unable to express it in words? Would it change us forever? For those who saw God move as a cloud and burn as fire in the Old Testament, those who interacted with Jesus, and the crowd present on the day of Pentecost were changed. The boy who needed healing was lowered through the roof to interrupt Jesus’ teachings because he needed to be changed. The woman who’d spent all she had on medicine after years of being ill, bravely risked everything to get to Jesus because she needed to be changed. They both sought the restoration found in Jesus’ presence. They both were successful.
I’d wager that once we learn to recognize God’s presence, we’d know that he is good and we would want more. We would shed our layers of fear, impatience, and disdain toward others—you know, the very habits which distract us from noticing God’s movement—and see that he is present with us. This God of the wind which blew throughout the ancient people of the Old Testament, and mightily rushed among the trembling believers of the New Testament, still exhales today. We only need to pause long enough to notice. If we do, we might see ourselves, the inhabitants of Earth, royal priests of his presence, and image bearers of the King, as common but not ordinary.
Interestingly enough, we don’t need to climb higher to experience the Overview Effect. We don’t need to be hurled into space or hike the highest peak. We don’t need to travel to a certain spot or stand on a giant stage. In fact, it might be the exact opposite. Perhaps, the lower we get the more we see. When we respond to the overlooked, restore the overexposed, and rescue the overworked among us, we experience God’s Overview Effect (Matthew 18:10). And, if ever you find yourself in that low place with another, you might respond with the same words one of the astronauts said, “this must be what God sees.” If so, gasp in awe of the presence of God and let a holy hush come over you because you’ll have just come across a common moment that was extraordinary.
photo from NASA